From March 21 to 24, the pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby J Street held its fifth national conference in Washington, DC, attended by 3,000 participants. The status of the Israel-Palestine question was vastly different from the last time the group had assembled in 2013, and the gathering’s tenor and many of the messages delivered there were quite unlike those which had characterized past conferences.
J Street’s previous conference, which began on September 28, 2013, took place just two months into the nine-month negotiating process initiated by the Obama Administration and managed by Secretary of State John Kerry and Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Ambassador Martin Indyk. It was a cautiously optimistic time. J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami rallied the organization’s supporters, terming the U.S.-sponsored talks “a rare opportunity” to reach a historic compromise and end the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. “The window is still open,” Ben-Ami insisted.
The two senior U.S. government representatives at the conference, Indyk and Vice President Joe Biden, were similarly upbeat. Indyk knowingly related that “the prospects for an agreement are real” and that the Kerry initiative was “different from all the [previous]” rounds of bargaining. Biden confidently said that “this very moment may offer the best opportunity for [Palestinian-Israeli] peace.”
A different atmosphere prevailed at this year’s J Street Conference, with a record three thousand participants including over 1,000 students, held almost a year since the collapse of the Kerry talks and just a few days after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu successfully beat back an electoral challenge from his more flexible center-left opposition. Gone were the hopeful projections of imminent breakthrough. More significantly, perhaps, little desire remained for additional rounds of U.S.-mediated negotiations — at least as long as Netanyahu stayed in power.
The Two-State Solution Remains the Best and Only Way to Resolve the Conflict
One aspect of the J Street vision that showed no sign of wavering was the organization’s rock-solid support for a two-state political framework as not merely the best, but the “only,” way to resolve the conflict. Morton Halperin, chair of the J Street board, launched the conference with a call for “an Israel that lives in peace alongside an independent and peaceful Palestine.” “We urge American engagement and active leadership to ... achieve a two-state solution,” Ben-Ami followed, since this was the only way to reconcile American, Israeli and Palestinian interests, as well as “our Jewish and our democratic values.”
James Baker, secretary of state during the Bush, Sr. Administration — and foreign policy advisor to potential presidential candidate Jeb Bush — the keynote speaker at the closing gala dinner, maintained that “land for peace under UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 is the only basis upon which the dispute can reasonably be settled.” Indyk stressed that “there is no alternative to a two-state solution [save] continued conflict.” From the Palestinian side, PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat reassured attendees that the “only option is a two-state solution.” And President Obama’s representative at the conference, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, left no room for doubt, telling a plenary session that “America’s commitment to a two-state solution is fundamental to U.S. foreign policy ... Because it is the only way to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Some one-state “apostasy” could be found on the margins of the conference. The most prominent example, perhaps, was the plenary session remarks made by one-time Ratz Member of Knesset and Brit Tzedek founder Marcia Freedman in favor of a binational state (where Jews would be a “protected minority”). At a breakout session dealing with tensions between J Street’s left and right flanks, a participant similarly suggested that J Street sponsor research into the feasibility of preserving Jewish autonomy within a future one-state framework. However, such thinking seemed to represent only a minor undercurrent.
Another consistent and repeated message was that, despite the continuing growth of settlements and the strong presence of rejectionists on both sides, the two-state solution was still feasible. “Peace is possible,” McDonough proclaimed several times. “Reaching an agreement is possible,” Labor Party Secretary General MK Hilik Bar concurred. A two-state solution “can be done,” Indyk claimed.
“Netanyahu Is Not a Two-Stater”
Where J Street’s fifth conference broke new ground was in its willingness to clearly disbelieve the current Israeli government’s commitment to peace. This followed Netanyahu’s campaign statement that no Palestinian state would be created as long as he was at the helm. Once elections were over and there was no longer a need to encourage turnout among his hard-line base, Netanyahu quickly sought to qualify his earlier statements and claim that he had not renounced his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech. But J Street’s speakers were having none of it.
Erekat summed it up matter-of-factly: “Benjamin Netanyahu is not a two-stater. He’s not.” Baker pointed out that Netanyahu’s settlement construction had always been at odds with his two-state rhetoric, even before his explicit “reversal.” Halperin humorously dismissed any residual belief that Netanyahu might undergo a “third incarnation” and support two states. McDonough stated that Netanyahu’s pre-election comments had been “very clear [and] so very troubling” and “call into question his commitment to a two-state solution.” Netanyahu’s post-election clarification left McDonough underwhelmed: “We cannot simply pretend that these [original] comments were never made.”
Ben-Ami took aim at Netanyahu’s integrity. The J Street leader suggested that Netanyahu’s previous pro-peace rhetoric had been a brazen lie; his campaign statements were a, “confirm[ation of] what so many people already knew, that he is utterly ... opposed to Palestinian statehood.” Zionist Union-HaTnuah MK Yoel Hasson concurred, stating at a press briefing that he had never believed that Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan sentiment was sincere. As for the Prime Minister’s post-election walk-back, Ben- Ami called it, “shameless and cynical”.
With the prospect of a right-wing/ultra-orthodox coalition emerging in Israel, McDonough made sure to nip in the bud any post-two-state options such a government might contemplate: “Neither occupation nor expulsion of Palestinians is the answer,” he made clear. McDonough also opposed a one-state future, as it “would effectively end Israel’s nature as a Jewish and democratic state.” Referring to the demand by the Jewish Home party and many Likud politicians to unilaterally annex over half the West Bank, he called such an idea “both wrong and illegal.” The United States, he stated categorically, “would never support it, and ... it would only contribute to Israel’s further isolation.” McDonough also seemed to preemptively rule out any renewed talk of a partial, interim deal, a fallback approach often promoted by Israeli centrists. “Anything less than true peace,” McDonough warned, “will only worsen the situation.”
J Street Says a New UN Resolution Is a Possible Way Forward
But with the negotiating process at what Halperin termed “a dead end — at least for the moment,” what practical paths forward was the J Street gathering able to suggest? For many, the United Nations represented a possible avenue. Erekat explained that, lacking an Israeli partner, the Palestinians had gone to the UN “in order to preserve the two-state solution,” and he recounted that their resolution called for a “State of Palestine [living] in peace and security side by side with the state of Israel on the 1967 lines.” In a Q&A session, Erekat warned that recourse to the institutions of the international community was now his only answer to Palestinian organizations that preached a strategy of violence.
J Street itself broke significantly from its previous approach, which had opposed an internationalization strategy. Back in 2011, the organization had supported the U.S. veto of Palestine’s application to the Security Council for UN membership, arguing that the Palestinian gambit was counterproductive and that the UN was the wrong venue for addressing the conflict. In 2012, J Street “neither supported nor opposed” the UN General Assembly resolution that made Palestine a non-member observer state, explaining that it would neither contribute to nor detract from two-state negotiations.
On opening night, however, Halperin acknowledged that, “some things must change,” and Ben-Ami announced that J Street was calling on the U.S. to “put forward ... the parameters for a reasonable resolution of the conflict” and “support a Security Council resolution” that would make it clear to “both sides ... how this conflict is going to end.” At a plenary session, author and columnist Peter Beinart endorsed the idea wholeheartedly, saying it was “the most important move that [Obama] can realistically make in the rest of his presidency.”
Many of the Knesset members at the conference were less enthusiastic about casting off the old bilateral paradigm. At a press briefing, MK Ksenia Svetlova of Zionist Union-HaTnuah stated that a future Israel-Palestine border “should be built on a process of negotiations,” rather than a “onesided” resolution at the UN. Her party colleague Hasson agreed that the “UN is not the address” for dealing with the Israel-Palestine question, suggesting instead that Obama restart negotiations and “push the Israeli government.” Bar told the plenary that while Netanyahu might lack the “guts” to reach a deal, the answer was to be “patient,” change the government through the electoral process, and “try again and again” to negotiate a settlement. MK Tamar Zandberg of Meretz was more supportive of an internationalization strategy, noting at the press briefing that a UN resolution should not automatically be interpreted as anti-Israel. Chiding the Zionist Union MKs, she asked rhetorically, “How can we support a Palestinian state in Israel and adopt Netanyahu’s policy outside of Israel?”
Representing Obama, McDonough was more tight-lipped regarding a possible UN path. Referencing the President’s post-Israeli-election remarks, he said the U.S. would, “need to reevaluate ... how we pursue the cause of peace.” He did not elaborate, as the administration seemed intent on holding its fire and watching how negotiations to form Israel’s coalition government played out, amid the possibility that Netanyahu might opt for a more temperate “unity government” with Zionist Union. “We will look to the next Israeli government to match words with its actions, with policies that demonstrate a genuine commitment to a two-state solution,” said McDonough. Nonetheless, the White House chief of staff might have been hinting at what Israel stood to lose in the international arena when he issued this reminder: “No nation has done more to stand with Israel in the world, including at the United Nations, than the United States.”
The representative of the Yesh Atid party, MK Yaakov Peri, proposed a new “regional” approach to negotiations, arguing that it was time to move past bilateral talks with the Palestinians, which were, “unable to provide a viable solution” (see Peri’s article in this issue ed.).
McDonough and Indyk: Two States “Based on the 1967 Lines with Mutually Agreed Swaps”
While Peri didn’t offer specifics regarding the parameters of a final status agreement (he mentioned neither Jerusalem nor the refugee question, while referring to undefined “territorial swaps”), Indyk and McDonough were less ambiguous. “We know what a peace agreement should look like,” McDonough stated, and the two Americans used identical phrasing regarding its territorial component: Israel-Palestine borders “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”
Indyk added further details, reporting that the Kerry talks had given the administration “a clear picture” of what a peace deal will include: Territorial exchanges that would “accommodate 75 to 80% of the settlers where they live today ... security arrangements like the demilitarized Palestinian state ... Jerusalem [as] the shared capital of two states ... a just and agreed solution to the Palestinian refugees’ problem, such that the Palestinians will have the right of return to their state of Palestine but ... not ... to the state of Israel. And ... mutual recognition ... Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people and Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people.”
Some suggested other possible tactics. Beinart proposed to “amplify Palestinian nonviolent protest” through American participation, suggesting that young American Jews emulate the “[w]hite kids who went to Mississippi in the 1960s.” Their experience — “being tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets in the West Bank” — he said, would shake the conscience of the American Jewish community. Halperin said the U.S. should take steps “to make expansion of the settlements costly to Israel,” and Ben-Ami advised the administration to declare settlements illegal and “give meaning to those words.” Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now argued at a breakout session that there were ample low-grade opportunities for the U.S. to impose consequences in the diplomatic, technical, business and military spheres without challenging its fundamental relationship with Israel.
Yes to Increased Pressure, No to BDS
A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) strategy, however, remained officially anathema: “We will continue to be the leading ... opponents of BDS,” Halperin declared on opening night, a message seconded by J Street Vice President Rachel Lerner, who said in her breakout session that the BDS movement did not have a two-state agenda. McDonough touted an important benefit of a peace agreement: “It would deal a knockout blow to ... BDS ... and roll back de-legitimization efforts.”
While increased pressure was a common talking point at the J Street Conference, it did not come at the expense of fundamental support for a robust U.S.-Israel relationship, especially in the security sphere. “Some things will not change,” Halperin announced: “J Street ... will strongly support close security cooperation between the United States and Israel. J Street will support American assistance to Israel including critical defense support.” Baker stated that the U.S.-Israel relationship was “deeply grounded in common interests and in shared values,” and offered an effusive reassurance: “Whether we are governed by Democrats or by Republicans, America has been and always will be there for Israel’s security ... U.S. support for Israel is a bedrock principle of our foreign policy.”
Faced with gnawing criticism of Obama’s record on Israel, McDonough went to great lengths to drive home the same message: “No matter who leads Israel,” he said, “America’s commitment to Israel’s security will never waver ... Israel faces real dangers in a tough neighborhood.” We have provided ... “more than $3 billion in foreign military financing, and more than $100 million to improve Israel’s ... ballistic and cruise missile [defenses] ... Under President Obama we spent hundreds of millions helping to develop David’s Sling and the Arrow missile defense systems ... an additional $225 million for Iron Dome missiles and batteries [during the 2014 Gaza war].” The administration, he promised, “will continue to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge” noting that it would deliver the F-35 Joint Strike fighter next year, making Israel the “only country in the Middle East with a fifth-generation aircraft.” “Our security and military and intelligence cooperation is stronger than it’s ever been,” McDonough noted proudly, “and that’s not going to change.”
J Street’s fifth national conference thus saw the organization and its guests acknowledging the need for an adjusted strategy amid altered circumstances, but still lacking a coherent and agreed-upon operational blueprint. J Street’s order of the day unquestionably remains the twostate solution. In a sense, the conference functioned as a collective post- Netanyahu-victory brainstorm on what could now be done to get there, with a variety of ideas raised for replacing the old bilateral talks format with “something else”. In addition, many wrestled to balance their firm belief that the U.S. and the world must apply increased pressure on Israel, with an equally strong reluctance to go too far.